Rebuilding Liberalism

Social Justice with Individual Freedom


What Happened to Liberalism?

Liberalism is in crisis. Worse, it seems to be breaking down in the countries where it used to be strongest: Britain and the United States, where populism is in power; and Western Europe, where the ultra-right is growing in strength in angry popular response to the past thirty years of governance.

In a sense, one might think this is just business as usual for liberalism, which talks of social justice while too often implementing its opposite. If one is of a certain age, then one would remember one’s parents’ tales of the Great Depression and would have experienced the stagflation of the late 1970s and early ’80s, and its wage and price controls, and later the currency crises of the 1990s and the “tech wreck” at the turn of the twenty-first century. These marked the decades before the Great Recession of 2008. And these were just some of the economic crises. The societal scandals are arguably worse and far more persistent: high rates of relative poverty, disproportionate imprisonment of racial minorities, ruthless exploitation of the vulnerable, particularly in labour-intensive sectors like agriculture, food processing, and the sex trades. Then there are the newer issues around climate change and the West’s obsession with oil, to the point that it is changing the chemistry of the planet, with the disastrous effects on coastal areas and islands that we are beginning to see regularly.

Internationally, since the euphoria over the fall of the Berlin Wall, we see Western governments undertaking wars of aggression in the Middle East and aiding authoritarian forces of popular repression around the world. And when they try to do the opposite, as in Libya, there is no follow-up, to the detriment of peace in the entire region. And then there is the migration crisis, the thousands of migrants — mostly young people, the flower of their home countries in search of a better life — drowned each year in the Mediterranean with no coordinated action to resolve the underlying problems. This on top of the well-publicized issues of stagnant Western middle class salaries and the enormous rise in the wealth of the richest 1 percent: in the United States they now control over half the assets by value in that country. This is not the liberalism one knew in the postwar years and that helped defeat the tyranny of Soviet communism by holding up a mirror of freedom with justice.

There is a new element in this as well: the rise across much of the world of a tide of popular resentment against the West and its frivolous opulence in the midst of so much human distress. Resentment does not actually capture the feeling. There is a better French word: ressentiment. It expresses not only the outward resentment against an enemy or situation, but also a bitter self-hatred, a sense of personal failure for not having done more, despite its impossibility, a reaction to the waste of one’s life as one watches, helplessly, a bystander in one’s own fate. This seems to be an emerging trend among young people who make up the vast majority of the populations of the developing world.

The great problem facing the West today is that it has succumbed to a simplistic ideology — a caricature of liberalism — that seems to paralyze reflection and make it impossible for liberal regimes to adapt to experience except by making things worse. That ideology is not liberalism, it is neoliberalism.

Today’s liberalism — neoliberalism — makes a fetish of markets and individualism. Neoliberalism not only is based on Jeremy Bentham’s
utilitarianism, but has embraced a version that is Bentham on steroids.

Bentham, the father of utilitarianism as a doctrine of governance, hoped for an adjustment toward the middle: to the contrary, the neoliberals’ version has achieved an unprecedented accumulation at the top of society and a corresponding disaccumulation and household debt at the other end of society. Nevertheless, markets, according to neoliberals, are self-stabilizing, automatic optimizers. Neoliberals don’t believe “society” exists in any way other than as an aggregation of individuals. Neoliberals think monetary policy alone can pull countries out of a deflationary slump if the country will only ruin itself with austerity. Neoliberals think multinational corporations have equal or superior legitimacy to national governments. Neoliberals also hold that foreign direct investments are contracts underwriting current business practices and, therefore, that host governments should have no right to challenge them — to the point that even friends of free trade oppose recent trade deals.

Every one of those neoliberal postulates has been refuted in practice. In 2008, so-called self-stabilizing financial markets crashed and without government intervention would have pulled down the global economy. Monetary policy was unable to promote a recovery, such that eight years later the least “austerian” economy was outperforming the most ardent. The International Monetary Fund (IMF), which bowed to its board of rich neoliberal governments to support severe austerity in Greece, had to backtrack on that strategy, saying its costs outweighed the benefits. And as for the highly touted hyper-individualism the philosophy promotes over collective public policy, income disparities are higher than they have been since the Gilded Age of the Astors and their socialite friends in the 1880s. The great exceptions to these results are the authoritarian Asian regimes of the north Pacific, as well as to Singapore and the Scandinavians. It should surprise no one that under these circumstances Brexit — the popular outrage pushing back against European Union bureaucracy and its support for austerity — won in the 2016 referendum, and now Britain, the second most powerful economy in the European Union, may be leaving the organization. Neoliberals should perhaps begin to wonder if destabilizing the European Union, Europe’s most ambitious attempt at finding joint solutions and a common expression of its culture, is really in the interest of the West.

The bottom line is that leading Western democracies are beginning to feel they may be in serious trouble. The middle class decline is opening opportunities for extremes on either side: mass or populist solutions favouring the nation or property over the constitution, in some cases without meaningful popular elections. Caesarism, if not outright tyranny, seems to be lurking just around the corner.

Well, one might think, liberalism has always been in some kind of crisis. In some places where the crisis grew particularly acute — such as Central and Southeastern Europe in the 1920s and ’30s — it failed to overcome and perished. Knowing the result — the most ferocious war in history — we need to ask ourselves: Is this a movie we need to see again?

Here’s the problem: liberalism is about political freedom. Almost by definition, liberalism is inherently unstable because it aims to create a stable society from that most destabilizing of elements — human freedom. The Russians are right when they point out that authoritarianism has a longer, more continuous history of governance: but that is not a mark of success, rather the opposite. Now, however, the crisis is coming home to the liberal “heartland,” which can also be called the West: liberalism’s most enduring achievement.

Some (myself among them) believe that political freedom in the West has been in trouble for some time, ever since the triumphal arrival of neoliberalism in the late 1970s and early 1980s to preside over the dismemberment of the welfare state. For, under neoliberalism, a doctrine or philosophy that was once a vehicle of political freedom and social emancipation — and that may still look that way from countries ruled by dictators — came to symbolize financial oppression, economic and social precariousness, and the dashed hopes of an ever-brighter future to millions living under that philosophy, especially in the North Atlantic countries of its birth.

It ought to be fairly clear that neoliberalism is a mistake that flies in the face of liberal history and hopes. It ignores the aspirations and efforts of earlier generations of liberals who strove to complement political freedom with social justice. It may come as a surprise to neoliberals to realize that for most of its history, liberalism sought to meet that challenge. Feudalism, which liberalism strove to supplant, already gave more or less carte blanche to a ruling class to have its way with the rest. Removing the strict moral imperatives for the well-born to have a care for the poor is not liberalism — it is just a licence to destroy.

Yes, to be sure, it has occurred more than a few times in modern history that the 1 percent has claimed ownership of everything by demanding “freedom” for itself and no one else — most famously after 1880 when the barons of the newly industrialized West claimed a kind of vulgar nobility of extravagance. By the end of the nineteenth century, they faced the consequences: attacks on their legitimacy by New Liberalism in the United States, Fabian socialism in the United Kingdom, and by social democracy in France and state socialism in Germany, supported by the mobilization of the millions of working people who now populated the cities. Already the new urbanism had shown the superiority of municipal socialism and co-operative enterprise. Now organized to share power nationally, the working class parties and their middle class allies would force the rich to pay their share and contribute to better education and a range of social services. This was the tide that lifted all boats — if only because in effect it gave a boat to everyone. Was it liberalism? It was not classical liberalism, which was widely believed to have failed. Yet its novelty, an expanded state along Hegelian lines, never abandoned core liberal values, such as rule of law, enforceable contracts, and democracy. As for capitalism, that was also accepted, but subject to regulation and state interventions to alleviate its worst excesses.

Yet, somewhat counterintuitively, the gains and the general understanding that supported them took about a century or more to develop. It took the experience of the Great Depression before the fragility of markets — especially financial markets — was understood and accepted. How and why did it take so long? And if the answers offered by democratic, limited socialism were so powerful, how is it that they ultimately lost public support? The questions deserve answers. But one should also express a certain wonder that social democracy achieved much at all, given the onslaught of the anti-New Deal, anti-Keynesian attacks it endured. Over the thirty years between 1945 and 1975, under the welfare state, middle class living standards improved, educational and employment opportunities opened up, and excluded classes of citizens found themselves victorious in their fights for recognition and public acceptance. The ressentiment that was increasingly aimed at the bourgeoisie and its civilization at the end of the nineteenth century had begun to disappear by the mid-twentieth century, as the welfare state unfolded and the colonial wars of liberation ended. Capitalism, despite its history of squalor and oppression, even began to look attractive.

Table des matières

Introduction: What Happened to Liberalism?

1. Classical Liberalism's Failure: No Theory of Civil Society
2. The German Historical School
3. The Rise and Fall of the Welfare State
4. Rebuilding Liberalism: Where Do We Go from Here?

An Abbreviated Literature Review

La description

Establishing liberalism that offers freedom and social justice is possible. Doing so requires examining the history of liberal ideas and culture over the last two centuries, followed by a major overhaul of existing systems, which includes coming to terms with liberalism’s past and its major limitations, as well as upgrading liberal economics and preparing for technological disruption.
Rebuilding Liberalism combines a discussion about liberal ideas in a social context with political analysis, and builds a path forward that can ensure the survival of liberal society.